As a prospective teacher it’s important to recognize and stay in tune with certain things that most of the public probably simply overlook. In specific, I’m talking about the canon; the literary canon to be specific. The literary canon is a collection of the greatest works of literature. Because it is often recognized as the “greatest literature” it is also the literature I will be “recommended” to teach. And because I want to be passionate about my work and curriculum (whether I have complete control over it or not) I find it of great importance to myself that I stay up to par with what’s on the menu for teachers.
The collection is, of course, imaginary; there is no “list” per se, of these books. But even though there are no known recordings of this “list” (if you know differently please share) numerous books are commonly recognized by scholars and “scholarly” individuals, as “canon worthy”. And though there are a lot in common between the neighbors of this collection, there are also significant differences. This cacophony of literature has a wide assortment of books and novels that are “deemed worthy” of becoming known as the idolized literature we now know today. Examples of books that fit this collection are such novels as: The Old Man and The Sea, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Light In August, Shakespeare, Hamlet, Fahrenheit 451, Pride and Prejudice, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, etc. (Many of the same books we grew up reading in our schools)
But what exactly makes a book or novel worthy of this kind of recognition? What would prevent a book, like, say perhaps, Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf, from this awarding? In order to understand that, we’d have to take a look at the qualifications of the canon and truly understand what makes something canon worthy; and therein lies the conundrum.
Why the confusion? Simple, there is no clear definition or set regulations of what makes something “canon worthy”, there are only thousands of views and opinion set up by numerous scholars that are constantly disputed. Debates amongst scholars and writers are almost as diverse as debates on theology or politics (and sometimes just as heated). But with no clear definition by which to hold standards to, it’s understandable why there’s so much confusion; there are no standards! So relevance of literature is determined by the eye of the reader (“beauty is in the eye of the beholder”) and perhaps this is better. But there are some widely agreed on (though still widely disputed) concepts that have to be prevalent to make a work of literature (or art even) worthy of the canon.
Just like anything that continues to be recognized, something that is canon worthy has to be able to stand the test of time. According to Pamela Caughie they have to “Transcend their time” (Caughie) If something doesn’t stand the test of time than it’s just “history” (I use this term lightly). History is very informative and often entertaining, but perhaps it doesn’t relate to life as it is today (although “metaphorically speaking” it may) So needless to say, the work has to be relevant even by today’s standards. Looking at Fahrenheit 451 for example, the ominous message rings clearly to this day because we see evidences of our world becoming this dystopian wasteland every day. I could go on and on about the similarities of this world to what our world is becoming, but that would be a blog for another day. Caughie also argues that it has to “be a representative of its kind” (Caughie). To put this in “lamen’s terms”, what Pamela is trying to say is that the work has to be a clear representation of its time period and type. For example, books about oppression or slavery would be a clear representation of this. Books about war and modernist ideas would clearly present these ideas in their pages.
A work also has to be innovative and creative to be “canon worthy”. Just like any work of art, it has to be new different (although there are many exceptions to this rule). But as a friend recently pointed out to me, simply being innovative isn’t enough. It has to be innovative in a way that creates imitators in that style of innovation (Nic Stemm). For example, Flush was clearly innovative (a novel about the biography of a dog used to mirror the oppression and dystopian world created through the aristocracy) but he argued that it was not canon worthy because it had not been imitated. To simply be innovative is good, but to be recognizable, that innovation has to be adapted and replicated by someone else. This is of course helped in cause when the novel gains popularity.
But all in all, for me, works of the canon come down to the same judgements I have for art, “it’s in the eye of the beholder”. But that quite obviously is not enough, because the existence of the canon is to create “familiarity” and something “to strive for”, where as this diverts from diversity. But the death of the canon would lead to a world of “unfamiliarity” where the best novels are recognized as any novel deemed fit by the individual, and this of course lacks organization (not to mention the inclusion of crap like Twilight into its broken existence). So once again we are at a catch 22, as we are in so many things in life, and once again, that’s a blog for another day.